Buddhism arose in India at a time when a number of non-Vedic ascetic movements were gaining adherents:
These Śramaṇa traditions offered a variety of psychosomatic disciplines by which practitioners could experience states transcending those of conditioned existence.
Accounts of the Buddha’s quest for awakening depict the Bodhisattva engaging in ascetic disciplines common to many Śramaṇa groups of his time.
The Bodhisattva reportedly lived in the wilderness, practiced breath-control, gave little care to his manner of dress, and fasted for long periods, strictly controlling his intake of food.
But these accounts are not entirely consistent:
Most indicate that the Bodhisattva practiced asceticism for a period of 6 years;
others (namely the Sutta Nipata 446, and the Aṅguttara Nikāya 4:88) state that the period of ascetic practice was 7 years in duration.
All accounts depict the Bodhisattva practicing a regimen characterized by abstemious self-control, but details differ:
Some say that he went unclothed in the manner of some Śramaṇa groups, that he wore only animal skins or bark clothing, and that he subsisted on fruits and roots.
Some indicate that his meals consisted only of a single grain of rice, or a single jujube fruit.
The most critical discrepancy in these accounts of the Bodhisattva’s experiments in asceticism is the fact that where early sources such as the Sutta Nipata praise asceticism,
later accounts describe the Bodhisattva reaching a point where he rejects asceticism and discovers the Middle Way.
Later accounts link this discovery of a Path between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification to the achievement of Bodhi (Awakening):
The Bodhisattva, according to these accounts, had reached such a point of emaciation that he could feel his spinal cord by touching his abdomen (e.g., Majjhima Nikāya 1:80, 1: 246).
Fainting from hunger and near to death, the Bodhisattva had to rethink his methodology:
A critical juncture in his ascetic regimen occurred when he accepted an offering of rice boiled in milk and was rejected by his ascetic companions as a hedonist.
To understand why later accounts repudiate asceticism as a path to Awakening and link the practice of the Middle Way to the achievement of Awakening,
it is necessary to consider the history of Buddhist engagement with rival religious groups and how polemics shaped the development of Buddhism in India:
As Buddhism spread from its initial heartland, it became important that Buddhists take a stand on asceticism so as to clearly differentiate themselves from other non-Vedic Śramaṇa groups.
Rivalry with Jains was particularly intense, as Buddhists competed for support from more or less the same segment of the lay population that Jain monastics relied upon for their financial support.
It is suggested that anti-ascetic sentiments began to be expressed as Buddhists responded to critical remarks made by Jains to the effect that Buddhist monastics were lazy and self-indulgent.
Some argue that the biographical tradition of the Buddha’s discovery of the Middle Way after practicing extreme asceticism was developed in this polemical context.
Other scholars have focused on internal developments within Buddhism and seen evidence of a historical shift away from early asceticism.
Others argue that ascetic practices were the central focus of Buddhism in early days, but later were marginalized with the growth of settled Monasticism.
Historical issues aside, there are other reasons for ambivalence within Buddhist traditions with regard to asceticism:
On the one hand, ascetic practices are central to developing an attitude of being content with little, an important aspect of the salutary detachment that Buddhists seek to inculcate.
But on the other hand, asceticism can be practiced for a variety of unwholesome, self-aggrandizing reasons:
Because of concerns about possible misuse, ascetic practices have been regarded as optional rather than mandatory aspects of the path.
Lists of ascetic practices differ:
In Theravāda contexts, the classical list of ascetic practices (dhutanga) includes 13 items:
1) wearing patchwork robes recycled from cast-off cloth,
2) wearing no more than 3 robes,
3) going for alms,
4) not omitting any house while going for alms,
5) eating at one sitting,
6) eating only from the alms bowl,
7) refusing all further food,
8) living in the forest,
9) living under a tree,
10) living in the open air,
11) living in a cemetery,
12) being satisfied with any humble dwelling, and
13) sleeping in the sitting position (without ever lying down).
Mahāyāna texts mention 12 ascetic practices (called dhūta-guṇa):
They are the same as the Theravāda list except:
- they omit 2 rules about eating and
+ add a rule about wearing garments of felt or wool.
Several of the 13 dhutanga are virtual emblems of the Saṅgha in Theravāda countries:
For example, at the end of Theravāda ordination ceremonies, members of the Saṅgha are instructed in the 4 ascetic customs known as the four resorts (Pāli, nissaya):
1) begging for alms,
2) wearing robes made from cast-off rags,
3) dwelling at the foot of a tree, and
4) using fermented cow urine as medicine
(as opposed to more palatable medicines like molasses and honey).
These 4 practices, often mentioned in canonical texts, undoubtedly go back to the beginnings of Buddhism in India.
Studies of contemporary saints in Buddhist Asia suggest that those who follow ascetic practices enjoy tremendous prestige:
Bank presidents residing in Bangkok travel hundreds of miles and endure all kinds of hardships to visit and make offerings to Wilderness Monks of the Thai forest traditions.
There is no denying that the Buddhist emphasis on moderation militates against extreme asceticism. But it is equally clear from ethnographic and textual studies that ascetic practices are deeply woven into the fabric of Buddhism.